Standing Up To Cancer
|ESTELA JACINTO, PHD|
"CANCER CELLS are like chameleons. They morph," says researcher Estela Jacinto, PhD. "We need to be able to predict what they'll do next so we'll be ahead of the game." She's vigorously chasing this chameleon through her study, "Targeting Protein Quality Control for Cancer Therapy," which seeks novel ways of treating breast cancer.
Jacinto, who is an associate professor of physiology and biophysics at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and a scientist at The Cancer Institute of New Jersey, is a rising star in the research world. Her work focuses on the regulation of cell growth by the protein mTOR. Cell growth is coordinated by a series of events that are initiated by the binding of a stimulus to a receptor on the membrane. Once triggered, the receptor communicates to the rest of the cell through signaling molecules. In cancer, the alteration of growth or survival signals can ultimately cause the signaling circuits to go out of control. Abnormal changes in receptor levels generate more cell defects that lead to uncontrolled growth. Many cancer therapies take advantage of this phenomenon by blocking activity of growth receptors at the membrane. However, cancer cells can bypass the block over time, leading to drug resistance.
"Understanding the bypass mechanisms involved would provide new avenues for cancer therapy," says Jacinto. Her lab discovered that a protein complex called mTORC2 plays a crucial role in some of these bypass mechanisms. "Many cancer treatments are designed to inhibit a protein that has become too active. My research targets this protein before it's even functional. There haven't been many treatments designed to do that."
Jacinto's study is funded by the "Stand Up to Cancer (SU2C)" grant she received in April 2011. She is one of 13 young scientists to share $9.74 million for innovative studies. Over a three-year period, each of the scientists will receive $750,000 to continue their work. The grants support cutting-edge cancer research that might not receive funding through traditional channels.
"Getting this grant was really difficult because of the tough competition," she says. "They wanted ideas that are ‘out of the box,' but would be highly promising for translating into the clinic and possible collaboration with the SU2C Dream Team scientists."
Visit the "Stand Up To Cancer"
Innovative Research Grants website and
Jacinto's face is the first you'll see on the
home page. Each grant recipient narrates
a video explaining their research. "They
look for innovation," she says. Once her
written application made the cut, she
traveled to Philadelphia to present her
research proposal to a 25-member panel
of scientists, a process she describes as
"pretty nerve-wracking. But the scarier
part for me was the next step, when I
had to do a layman's interview on
camera. I'm used to speaking about the
science; that's easy for me. Presenting
the relevance of my research so that
someone, especially a cancer patient, will
understand what it can do for them, is
— Mary Ann Littell